Amanda Jones
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Hawke's Bay

Special to the Los Angeles Times

I am standing in an acrylic tunnel staring at the underbelly of several eight-foot sharks. Blair, their keeper, has just explained that the large ones are of the sevengill variety, a shark that has a reputation for being occasional man-eaters. “But these ones,” he tells us, “are pretty tame—so long as we keep ‘em well fed.”

Then, out of the blue, Blair turns to me, an innocent, bystanding mother, and says, “So, how about it? Ya gunna come in and feed the sharks?”

A highlight of this aquarium, I learn, is that a few lucky visitors with dive certification can pay to scuba in the tanks at feeding time.

No thank you, I start to say. Tame or not, I have no burning desire to descend into a confined tank and wave hunks of bleeding fish about. Then I see the look of dumbstruck awe on my children’s faces. They stare at me as if I, their everyday, Ugg-boot-wearing mother has just morphed into a Charlie’s Angel. It’s pathetic what lengths we go to impress our children. I go in with the potentially man-eating sharks. It’s worth it just to watch my youngest waylaying strangers to inform them that the creature in the pink wetsuit is her mommy.

The sharks were residents of the very impressive National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier, the central town in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island. Not only does Hawke’s Bay claim one of the finest aquariums in the Southern Hemisphere, quite recently it has burgeoned into one of the country’s chicest holiday destinations, particularly among well-heeled New Zealanders. Few American tourists have discovered the region, despite the fact that several Americans are invested in wineries here and New York financier Julian Robertson (of Kauri Cliffs repute), has built a world-class golf course overlooking the sea at Cape Kidnappers, thirty minutes from Napier.

Once the pastoral domain of the gentleman farmer, Hawke’s Bay has bloomed into a haven for oenophiles, fishermen and nature lovers. It has fine grapes; gentle, rolling landscape; abundant orchards; swaths of empty beach, and superb trout fishing in broad, meandering rivers. It also happens to be where my mother went to boarding school, which means for her the place still holds fond memories of first loves, croquet parties and gimlets.

My mother was the reason for this trip. She was turning 70 and I had struggled to come up with an appropriate way to celebrate. A New Zealander, my mother is a gourmand who loves life’s finer things. She is an extravagant cook and a connoisseur of wine. I, on the other hand, spend my life either toiling over Mac n’Cheese, or, in my role as a travel writer, eating roast goat with remote African tribes. Knowing I could not possibly provide the kind of experience she might appreciate, I did something I’m very good at: I organized a trip.

Late last summer—March in New Zealand—my husband Greg, and our two daughters, Indigo and Sofia, aged five and seven, took the direct overnight flight from San Francisco to Auckland. In Auckland we joined my parents and caught a one-hour flight to Napier.

During my research on Hawke’s Bay, I had discovered an enterprise called the Black Barn. Started by an advertising executive turned urban dropout and his farmer-cum-designer business partner, the idea began with a boutique winery called the Black Barn Vineyard. Black Barn represents what is known as Kiwi ingenuity. “A couple of clever blokes who had the guts to put Hawke’s Bay on the map,” as a local apple grower later told me.

Established in 1993, their wines quickly garnered awards. Artists at heart, they built a first-rate amphitheater for opera and symphony, right in the heart of their grapevines. Then they added an art gallery, a farmers market, and a top-notch restaurant called the Black Barn Bistro. All were showered with rave reviews and cuisine honors and brought more people to the region.

At the same time, Kim Thorp and Andy Coltart, Black Barn’s entrepreneurs, recognized there were not enough stylish accommodation. Over the past ten years they have developed ten “retreats” in various geographic locations in the Hawke’s Bay.

The retreats are chic private houses rented out for exclusive use, which suited our purposes well. A house means you can cook all the macaroni cheese you like and not have your children turn their noses up at a $20 plate of pasta. It also means you can hire a babysitter while you go out and eat the $20 plate of pasta yourself. If you refuse to cook or clean on vacation, the Black Barn will arrange staff to do that for you.

I asked my mother where she’d like to go first. “Well,” she’d said wistfully, “I do remember seaside picnics at Waimarama Beach. It was a sleepy place with one shop and not a soul in sight. Marvelous.” Apparently Waimarama Beach has not changed much in the last fifty years. It’s still a sleepy, Long Island-esque beach community where the not-so-many people spend vacations walking, swim, surfing or sitting on the long stretch of creamy sand. We stayed at The Beach House, a Black Barn property—a sophisticated abode that sleeps 14 people and still manages to look like the sort of place Ralph Lauren would be seen lounging in wicker chairs on the sun porch.

Waimarama is a 30-minute drive from Havelock North, the nearest town, so after three days of beach decompression, we moved 30 miles inland to the River Houses, also a Black Barn retreat, set above the pristine and bucolic Tuki Tuki River. The River Houses are duel two-bedroom cottages sharing a pool. Each has a state-of-the-art kitchen, original New Zealand art and an uninterrupted view of the valley and the river below. To spare my parents the Chitty Bang Bang videos at 6 am, we put them in one cottage and we moved into the other.

Because it would be a travesty to come to this part of New Zealand and not sample the magnificent wines, Greg and I took a self-guided winery tour on bike. On Yer Bike is a small company operating from a woolshed on an olive farm near Havelock North, a quaint Hawke’s Bay village. The owners, Mike and Julie Russell, thought it might be a good idea to purchase a fleet of mountain bikes, draw a map and advertise. Their business boomed, and now it’s common to see bikers weaving their way between wineries. I say weaving not because of the alcohol consumed, although that may be an issue, but because the map takes you on as few roads as possible. This means you wend your way through fruit orchards, through rows of chardonnay grapes, and past paddocks full of sheep, making it an authentic Kiwi experience. We spent a delightful and romantic afternoon tippling and peddling, having dispatched the children on an Art Deco walk in Napier with my parents.

Established in 1850s by British traders and whalers, Napier was originally built in traditional Victorian style. In 1931, however, an earthquake devastated the town, leveling it. Rebuilt at the height of the Art Deco movement, Napier is nowadays recognized as having the most significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world and architecture and Deco buffs come to walk the streets clutching a Deco history map.

Although Napier is an attractive town, it’s still a place with 56,000 residents. The countryside surrounding it is where the natural beauty lies. Our River House accommodation was a tranquil 30-minute drive from Napier, during which we drove over the sweeping Tuki Tuki River.

Seeing fishermen standing thigh deep in the crystal water, Greg decided he must go trout fishing, a sport at which he is not terribly skilled and at which he gets bored quickly. “I need an expert,” he said. “Someone who can show me how to catch a trout promptly.” He called Long Island Tours, a local private tour company who arranges cultural, fishing and adventure activities, and booked a fishing guide. The advantage of these guides is they have exclusive rights to fishing spots on private land. Dave Mabin, Greg’s ruddy, mustachioed guide, was no exception. He picked us up at the house and took us upriver about 20 minutes to a shimmering spot on the Tuki Tuki. Here he taught Greg how to spot a trout and cast right to the mouth. Greg landed a respectable four-pounder within 15 minutes. Dryly, Dave told him to thank Rangikotama, the Maori god of water.The Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, and although they constitute only 15% of the population, their culture lives on. Hawke’s Bay, like most of the North Island, has a history steeped in Maori tradition.

Brigid Ormond, who owns Long Island Tours, is a local with a passion for showing visitors the “real” Hawke’s Bay—the places most people don’t get to. Although not Maori herself, Brigid has connections with the local marae, or Maori community, where her guests receive a traditional powhiri (ceremonial welcome), and can spend a day learning about Maori bush food, healing medicines and spirituality.

Brigid took us to Te Mata Peak, the tallest mountain in the region. According to Maori lore Te Mata is a giant who fell in love with a chieftan’s daughter and dropped dead while trying to win her hand. At the summit we met Anotia Makowharemahihi, an imposingly large and regal Maori chief. He stood atop the mountain, spread his arms and sang to his ancestors in the Maori language. Anotia then indicated that we are expected to respond in kind. At a loss, I turned to Indigo, my seven year old, who struck up a song in Spanish. As far as we know we don’t have a drop of Spanish blood, but Anotia seemed satisfied.

Returning from Te Mata Peak, we met a local gentleman fresh off the golf course. “Tellya a secret,” he said, “There’s that fancy golf course out at Cape Kidnappers that costs $150 a round. It’s gawgus n’all, but just down the road from there there’s the local Wairunga golf course, and that costs $10 a round. Right on the cliff, with cracker views too. We’re pretty lucky living here, I guess.”

On our final day I asked the girls if they wanted to go horse riding on the beach, pick fruit in an orchard, go swimming at the Ocean Spa pools in Napier, or visit Marineland where they could feed bottlenose dolphins.

“Ooh, we know exactly what we want to do,” they replied. “We want to go back to the aquarium and watch you feed the sharks again. That was cool.”